The Obama administration on Tuesday said it would lift the deep-water drilling moratorium it imposed after the massive BP oil spill, but Gulf of Mexico region lawmakers and industry advocates said the stiffer new rules that the government is imposing will leave rigs idle and workers out of jobs for months longer.
While government officials billed the new policy as a cautious yet pragmatic response to the worst oil spill in the nation’s history, environmental groups accused the White House of caving to political pressure three weeks before the midterm elections.
Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said a slate of new government rules on drilling and spill containment has reduced the risks of another spill, enabling him to lift the moratorium, which local leaders say has ravaged the region’s economy and sent jobs overseas. The ban was originally scheduled to end Nov. 30, weeks after the election.
“At this point, we believe the strengthened safety measures we have implemented, along with improved spill-response and blowout-containment capabilities, have reduced risks to a point where operators who play by the rules and clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume,” Mr. Salazar said.
Under the new government rules, drill-rig operators must submit to extensive physical inspections, provide detailed projections of a worst-case spill scenario and certify that rig workers are properly trained. Drilling companies’ top executives also must certify they have complied with the new rules - a way of imposing personal responsibility for their companies’ activities.
Mr. Salazar predicted he would draw criticism from both sides of the issue. He was right.
“Today’s decision is a good start, but it must be accompanied by an action plan to get the entire industry in the Gulf of Mexico back to work,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, a fierce critic of the moratorium. “This means that the administration must continue to accelerate the granting of permits in shallow and deep water, and provide greater certainty about the rules and regulations industry must meet.”
Mrs. Landrieu said the announcement does not go far enough for her to release her legislative hold on Jacob Lew, President Obama’s nominee to be the new White House budget director. Likewise, Gulf State Republicans warned the new rules could create a bureaucratic bottleneck by being too onerous for drilling operators to comply with, saying it could be several months before their new applications are approved.
“It’s clear that President Obama is going to preside over a continuing de facto moratorium for months or years, with new drilling held back to a fraction of previous levels,” Louisiana’s other senator, David Vitter, said.
The pro-industry Institute for Energy Research said the move amounted to a “permitorium” on deep-water drilling.
“Today’s announcement is about politics and headlines, not getting folks back to work and increasing domestic energy exploration and production in the United States,” IER President Thomas J. Pyle said. “What was announced today will result in no change in domestic energy production in the Gulf of Mexico until Interior Secretary Salazar begins to issue permits once again. In the meantime, thousands of Gulf Coast families will continue to be out of work. It can’t be explained any other way.”
Mr. Salazar said he based his decision on a report by Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which laid out a series of recommendations on how to improve the safety of drilling in the wake of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana.
Asked by reporters how long it will take the 36 oil rigs that were affected by the moratorium to come back online, Mr. Bromwich said it’s anybody’s guess, but that the timeline depends mostly on how long it takes firms to ensure they are in compliance with the new rules.
“It will clearly not be tomorrow, and it is not going to be next week,” he said, adding that it’s “my sense that we will have permits approved by the end of the year.”
Greenpeace USA criticized the administration as capitulating to “big oil.”
“This is pure politics of the most cynical kind. It is all about the election season, not safety and environmental concerns. The White House wants us to believe that they have solved all the dangers of offshore drilling and we can return to business as usual. It is a false promise, if not a big lie,” Executive Director Philip Radford wrote in an article on Huffington Post on Tuesday.
But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that political pressure had nothing to do with Mr. Salazar’s announcement, calling it “part of the natural policy process” that resulted from the government’s months-long review of deep-water drilling safety.
The ban drew a series of legal challenges from drilling companies and state governments, with varying degrees of success.
A judge blocked Mr. Salazar’s first attempt, announced in May, to halt drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. Judge Martin L.C. Feldman said the ban was unjustified and that it appeared to have been prompted more by politics than science.
Mr. Salazar withdrew that first moratorium and replaced it with another one, which he said was tailored specifically to high-risk drilling rigs. But drillers challenged the new ban, too, arguing it applied to exact the same number of rigs, suggesting the second ban was purely meant to sidestep the court’s ruling.
On Tuesday, Mr. Salazar submitted a request telling Judge Feldman the moratorium has been lifted and asking him to keep that in mind as he considers what to do with the case.
c Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.